Two clever companies keep audiences in their thrall, as children’s theatre comes of age. By Tommy Murphy.

Monkey Baa and Windmill Theatre wow young imaginations

Paul Capsis, left, and Nathan O’Keefe in Windmill Theatre’s Pinocchio.
Paul Capsis, left, and Nathan O’Keefe in Windmill Theatre’s Pinocchio.
Credit: © Brett Boardman 2014
An actor enters, revealing a costume change. A patron in the front row screams. She demands to know: “Who are you?” Other patrons hush her, embarrassed by her indiscretion. But she’s not done yet. Later, she stands, steps onto the stage and, clearly dissatisfied with the actor’s immobility during a key scene, she shoves him. The actor holds his ground. He dare not break the illusion. He is a sheep now. His fate rests on the action in the imagined paddock before him. This curious patron prodding him does not exist in Pete the sheep’s universe.

Across town at the Sydney Opera House, that bewitching songbird Paul Capsis is disguised as a lollipop man. His twirled moustache suggests there’s more than road safety on his mind. He leads a call and response, that ancient and cheapest of all tactics to endear an audience to a performer. It works brilliantly. You feel like Capsis is eyeballing every individual in the house as he beguiles with his beautiful vocal gymnastics. His creation, the cackling and extravagant Stromboli, is like the love child of Baz Luhrmann and the Wicked Witch of the West. “I own everything,” he exclaims. He owns us.

This is children’s theatre, the front line of the crafty art of playmaking. It’s damn difficult. Seated in Monkey Baa’s brand-spanking new purpose-built playhouse in Sydney’s Darling Quarter, it seems the form has come of age. Recent projects Pinocchio by Windmill Theatre and Pete the Sheep by Monkey Baa demonstrate the artistic ambition and high-calibre collaborations of today’s children’s theatre. Both shows are on national tours. International engagements are again deservedly beckoning for the Adelaide-based Windmill.

It’s quite the task to enthral children so accustomed to pushing the buttons themselves. Kids are hardwired like pokies addicts, hungering for the flashing lights and sounds of their tablet devices. Designer Jonathon Oxlade and lighting designer Geoff Cobham finely balance the visual confectionery in Pinocchio. The production extends the landscape of the narrative via video design by Chris Moore. It is at its most effective when the theatrical is integrated with the video art. When Geppetto’s boat takes to the ocean, the green sea tempest marries vaudeville illusion with digital animation. Later the audience is awed by the simple rearrangement of wood panels and the addition of a painted exercise ball; the shape before us morphs into a giant shark, filling the entire stage, leering with a monstrous eye.

The spirit of the picture book experience is maintained in Monkey Baa’s Pete the Sheep. Set and costume designer James Browne gives a nod to illustrator Bruce Whatley’s visual style. Director Jonathan Biggins’ fondness for comic reveals means every entrance and scene change is as fun as turning the page. And yet, it’s pure theatre. Physicality and voice do the real work, rendering a shearer into a sheep and then transforming him into a dog. The children play these games at home: the elastics of theatrical imagination.

Above all, this show holds the attention of its multigenerational audience because it ups the ante at a belting pace. Co-writers Eva Di Cesare, Tim McGarry and Sandra Eldridge have mined Jackie French’s 28-page picture book for genuine drama and conflict. Pete’s a sheep employed as a sheep dog. His arrival upsets the equilibrium. He triggers a revolt among a leaderless proletariat in the habit of following the flock. If the children weren’t deciphering the story on that level they were certainly swaying along to Pete’s big show number “Try Something New”.

Pinocchio’s standout anthem is “I Know”. He shares much with the tantrum-chuckers in the house. Pinocchio longs to be a complete person. He will achieve his goal when he has regard for others. The man who would thwart this is Stromboli: devilish yet somehow plausible in his wickedness. He lures children to his workhouse disguised as a theme park. Children mutated into donkeys drive the machinery to power it – there really ought to be a royal commission into such a scheme. Finally, it is Pinocchio’s unselfish heroism that magically entitles him the status of living human.

As a musical, Windmill’s Pinocchio is pitched with a familiar pop sound. Nathan O’Keefe, in the titular role, gets his rage on with searing emotional force. This marionette is anything but wooden. For the most part these pieces are sung soliloquies that illuminate the internal life of a character in an isolated moment. Pete the Sheep more successfully utilises song to deepen character while advancing the narrative. Tellingly, these songs often involve the entire ensemble. Composer Phillip Scott cleverly underscores interweaving action and his witty lyrics manage to intensify the mounting conflict. Pete the Sheep runs at only 50 minutes – a fact that Monkey Baa emblazons on their posters where other productions would quote a five-star review. This little yarn satisfies because of its deft dramatic storytelling.

Windmill’s version of Pinocchio carefully crafts a play from the curly riches of Carlo Collodi’s 1883 canonical tale. Some existential encounters don’t make the cut, but I still wonder if they could have chipped a bit harder at this knotty trunk. At times the momentum driving towards the next event is beholden to Collodi’s plot rather than the culmination of the drama transpiring on stage. We play catch-up to quickly meet a fantastic array of characters and too often the dialogue carries the burden of the exposition. It’s a pity to rely on abbreviated offstage action when the moments of actual dramatic incident work so well in this production.

There is an added obligation here: the enchantment of tomorrow’s audience. These shows triumph when they exploit the form and acquaint this new audience with what theatre does best. Children’s theatre – it is obvious yet somehow necessary to specify – must be theatre. The prevalence of adaptations in the field further mandates that these shows demonstrate why they require rebirth for the stage. Literacy and pedagogy might be part of the mix, but these artists know we ain’t queueing at no box office for that.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 26, 2014 as "Moment of truth".

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Tommy Murphy is a playwright and screenwriter.

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